Beyond Pixels: Sidonie Maria Šakālis on Voice Acting, Nursing, Creativity and Life

October 23, 2020
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You may know Sidonie Maria Šakālis as the voice of Izzy in Lost Words: Beyond the Page, the platforming adventure written by Rhianna Pratchett. What you might not know is that a lot of the early animation work in the game was also created by Šakālis, and that she has many hidden talents, interests and hobbies. Eager as ever to learn more about the people behind the games you play, we had the chance to chat with Šakālis for our Beyond Pixels series and find out all about the person behind the voice — and this ambitious, creative, and supremely talented artist is certainly more than just a voice.

Sidonie Maria Šakālis — animator, voice actress, nurse.

From Animator to Nurse and Voice Actress

A 28-year-old animator, voice actress and student nurse from Essex, Šakālis’ story is immediately compelling as she tells us about her heritage. “I was born in England, but I’m half-Latvian on my father’s side. Given England’s upcoming departure from the European Union, I’ve been quite motivated to get back in touch with and take pride in my Baltic roots.”

A self-described “creative oddball,” Šakālis’ early work and education was actually in animation, rather than voice acting. “I gained my animation degree in my early twenties from Norwich University of the Arts. My background is primarily in traditional, hand drawn, 2D cel-frame animation — think Glen Keane, Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon, etc.” 

But how does one go from being a student to working on a project like Lost Words? “Upon graduating, [I] went on to participate in a program based at the University of Essex called Shark Infested Custard, which was designed to bring together indie developers from around the local area. That’s where I met Mark Backler [founder of Lost Words creator studio Sketchbook Games], and thus began my work on the initial development of Lost Words: Beyond the Page, where I worked as an animator and technical artist, someone who implements interactable assets within the game environment.” It was only much later that Šakālis would stumble into the role of voicing the game’s Izzy.

But following the game’s release, Šakālis has gone on to follow another passion of hers: nursing. “You may find me wandering Essex-based wards, where I’m assigned during placement for my Adult General Nursing Degree at the University of Essex. We were pulled off of placement due to the Covid-19 pandemic, hence my current affinity for pink hair, which unfortunately goes against the typical nursing uniform policy. I’m still deducing a workaround,” she tells us.

“I’d Expected That Would Be the Last of My Contributions.”

Šakālis recording voice lines.

We were surprised to find out that Šakālis was involved with Lost Words as an animator from its inception, creating many of the game’s early animations and even helping get the project off the ground, but how did she transition from animation to voice acting? 

“After I’d finished working on Lost Words as an animator, a lot of my original cel-frame sprites were eventually replaced with up-to-date Spine animations,” Šakālis says. “Because we didn’t have a fully written story during my time there, there wasn’t a great deal of animation to be done. I’d had a fantastic time working on Lost Words, helping to show it at events and pitching the concept to investors, but I’d expected that would be the last of my contributions, once I stopped working on the game.” 

It wasn’t. A year later in 2017, Mark got in touch with Šakālis again, asking if she would be willing to record some placeholder dialogue for the character of Izzy. Curious to see how the project had come along, she agreed. “We used a portable audio recorder borrowed from another indie dev, Frazer Merrick of Teaboy Games, and recorded a few lines from the first chapter of the game,” Šakālis recalls. “It was good to catch up, and I didn’t mind lending my voice since I figured it was a temporary fix and a nice way to continue to support a creative project which I wholly believed in.”

Rhianna Pratchett and Recording Izzy

Šakālis didn’t think anything more would come from that initial recording, it was supposed to be a placeholder after all. In February 2019, however, she was contacted again, this time asking her to audition to be the real voice of Izzy. “By that point I was very busy with my Access to Healthcare Sciences course, as I was studying to get into Nursing,” Šakālis says. “But it seemed like a really good opportunity to get involved in a slightly different and unusual creative avenue. I’d not had any previous voice acting experience, but since I have a young-sounding voice and a penchant for melodrama, acting for Izzy was second nature.”

Bringing Izzy to life.

Rhianna Pratchett wrote the story for Lost Words, so what was it like for Šakālis to work with such an established figure in the games industry? “I wasn’t so much nervous about working with Rhianna Pratchett, simply because I’d adored her gripping and powerful femme plot lines in Rise of the Tomb Raider, although I was very excited to work with someone who specialised in writing the kinds of characters that I’d wanted to play in games when I was Izzy’s age. Furthermore, the entire Lost Words team were so talented, I’d become well-accustomed to any feelings of imposter syndrome by the time recording rolled around.”

According to Šakālis, recording took place on an ad hoc basis to fit in with her busy schedule. “Occasionally, I would get sent bits of the script or asked to watch the gameplay so I could visualise the context, but aside from that, Izzy’s dialogue was recorded unrehearsed, and when I could find the time between nursing practice placements. So, very often following 12.5 hour shifts on a busy respiratory ward.”

Going into further detail, she tells us, “I worked together in close collaboration with Mark and our producer at Modus in order to achieve the emotional tone of some of the lines, which was often very nuanced and required a fair bit of fine-tuning. Sometimes we’d just record three or four different versions and pick the one which fit. I also found I got rather peckish while recording, and a well-timed packet of Bourbons helped to ward off any cases of the rumblies.” We can’t fault her choice in biscuit.

Animal Dragons Crossing Into Dungeons

Šakālis helps bring video game worlds to life at work, but we wanted to find out worlds she jumps into in her down time. “I enjoy playing games, and it’s fun to develop them. It’s essentially solving a really good puzzle but backwards. I really enjoy a good RPG. I’m a big fan of the Elder Scrolls series,” she says. “And I’ve been roped into a couple of mates’ Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. I’m a Wood Elf Vampire Arcane Trickster, and I will bite you. Lockdown has also left me intent on finding a way to play Jet Set Radio Future. I’ve also mysteriously come into possession of a Nintendo Switch. My Animal Crossing avatar is quite the interior decorator.”

But Šakālis puts her education first, and doesn’t have as much free time as she’d like these days. “I’m fully committed to the nursing degree. It takes up most of my time, but it would be fun to try and get back into the indie-dev lifestyle a bit more once I’ve graduated, as the only work I’ve done within the video games industry prior to voice acting was my work as an animator on Lost Words.” A hard-working and talented creative, we think Šakālis will do just fine with her future video game endeavours.

Overcoming Challenges and Finding Your Passion

After finishing her animation course at university, Šakālis initially found it hard to break into games. “After moving back to Colchester, I found finding any work in the animation field to be a real challenge. They were all based in London, and as a graduate, I just didn’t have the money to commute.”

Šakālis the nurse.

She initially found it hard to get her footing in the working world. “I flitted from job to job. HMV, a call centre (those were dark times, although, rather curiously, customers often mentioned I had a lovely voice), a music specialist where I sold sheet music, pianos and ukuleles.” But bouncing ideas off others is often the best way to get yourself out of rut. “I had a heart-to-heart with one of my besties over a drink, where we sat and had a really good think about feeling stuck and needing money, but also wanting to have a positive impact in society. At the time I’d resigned myself to being unable to animate for a living because it just didn’t seem achievable, and there were other, more pressing matters at hand. I needed stable, secure work, and a job that wasn’t going anywhere.”

"Working mainly with clients who were severely disabled completely reshaped my perspective on life and what a person needs to be happy."

To keep herself afloat, Šakālis kept an open mind when it came to finding a job and it paid dividends.“I took a job as a support worker and discovered that I really enjoyed being there to help people. Working mainly with clients who were severely disabled completely reshaped my perspective on life and what a person needs to be happy. I felt that there was so much more that I could give for those people and others, so I started looking at what I would need to achieve in order to get into nursing.” 

But it wouldn’t be an easy path. Šakālis had already been to university for animation, and swapping to another skilled career path can be challenging, but she didn’t let it stop her. “I had to go back to college as an adult learner in order to get the A-level equivalent, which was an Access to Higher Education for Healthcare Sciences Diploma. Up to that point, I’d never worked so hard in my life,” she explains. “We had at least one assignment deadline per week, and I really had to burn the candle at both ends. It was a full-time course, and I was financially supporting myself by working 14 hour days in care. That was hard, because the first year in care, you get so sick. I must’ve had colds the majority of that year.” An impressive feat that would stop many in their tracks.

“It’s a really tough job, nursing, and you do see a lot, but I’m always honoured to be there for people in what are usually very sensitive times in their lives. I love that no day is the same, and I’m not stuck at a desk all day, but instead actively running around and making a difference in people’s lives.”

Šakālis’ nursing education, however, has been affected by the pandemic. “Although I’m now a second-year student, my cohort and I were taken off placement towards the end of year one, and we won’t be returning until October. We can’t be placed on Covid wards unless we opt in, but that doesn’t mean we won’t encounter patients who may eventually test positive.” Scary stuff.

“Our course leaders have brought forward our year-two curriculum and added a lovely ten weeks of placement to next year’s calendar. I suspect that’ll be quite stressful, as it’s nice to have the alternation between theory and placement — the next academic year won’t have any of that.”

Combating Prejudice and Discrimination - and Why We Need to Do Better

Lost Words: Beyond the Page

Recently, we’ve seen ever-increasing stories of harassment, abuse and misconduct come to light in large studios like Ubisoft, but this isn’t just limited to bigger studios; rather, our previous interviews have shown this to be an industry-wide problem. The raison d'être of the Beyond Pixels series is to get to the heart of matters like these, and give marginalised voices a chance to speak about what affects them. So, we asked Šakālis about her opinion and experiences on some of these issues.

"It’s still not really an industry that many women are aware exists as a legitimate pathway for them."

“Prejudice within the games industry tends to manifest in very subtle ways,” she says. “Put simply, it’s still not really an industry that many women are aware exists as a legitimate pathway for them, and so, like any STEM career, there are obstacles and pitfalls. The main ones being not a lack of female employees — of which there are many — but a distinct lack of female leadership and understanding, and male bosses' inexperience of exclusively female problems.”

Šakālis goes on to explain in more detail how game development is incompatible with women’s lives in a much different way to men’s. “Very often, animators are expected to work 60-hour weeks, and on relatively low wages, so it’s just not a career that is conducive to being female for the obvious reasons: high pressure deadlines, lack of family time, generally inflexible work hours, and an income that regularly fluctuates and isn’t guaranteed. The work-life balance is perhaps sustainable for young women, but not, in the long term at least, for women who want to have families. Fairly early on, I realised that I would very likely have to make the difficult choice between choosing to stay employed in the animation industry and having a family.”

Šakālis thinks we should aim to change these things. “There’s a studio in Brighton which I’m aware is doing just that by offering its female employees a more flexible approach to work than just the standard Monday through Friday nine to five, which often doesn’t work for women. Reading that made me so happy, because it’s a sign that progress is being made, albeit slowly. It’s going to take a long time for the rest of the industry to catch on.” 

Trauma, Healing and How Life Shapes Art

Bringing Lost Words’ Izzy to life

Creative processes are often fuelled through real-life experiences, and it’s no different for Šakālis. “Voicing Izzy took place during a really difficult time for me. I was recovering from what can only be described as an abusive relationship. That person had significantly undermined my confidence over a period of years, and being a voiceover artist hugely helped me to reclaim the carefree aspects of myself with which I had lost touch.” Recording, then, became therapeutic for Šakālis. “To go into a box for several hours and pretend to be someone I’m not? That was relief. Voice acting the part of Izzy served as the catalyst for healing myself, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.”

She used her feelings to make the character of Izzy that much more believable. “I was also able to utilise a great deal of my own emotions. The scenes in which Izzy is angry and sad were fuelled by my own grief, which was a powerful motivator. Such that, after recording particularly emotive scenes, I actually found myself shedding a tear or two on the train journey home. Not something I’d usually do, but the story of Izzy’s character really resonated with me.

Šakālis also used her nursing experience to give authenticity to Lost Words. “Working in a hospital can be physically and emotionally challenging, even with my student status. There are some scenes in the game in which Izzy is in hospital with her grandmother, and as someone who has been training predominantly in end-of-life care, those just hit me like, ‘Yeah. I get that, completely.’ Watching a relative going through something as life-changing as a stroke, it’s a really difficult thing, and you feel so powerless,” she tells us. “A good deal of my patients are elderly, and their suffering is very similar to Izzy’s gran’s, so for me, there was always a parallel between the game and real life.”

And finally, she also harnessed her own life experiences for the game. “The part of Izzy also led me to reflect on when my own grandmother had cancer, and I was a similar age, just coming into my own and figuring out how to deal with the heartache of bereavement. It’s not easy being a young person, and I think that’s something we tend to forget as we get older. Lost Words is a sensitive and well-considered reminder.”

It’s Not All Fun and Games

Šakālis has a plethora of other hobbies and interests outside of the games industry, too. Describing herself as an “extroverted introvert”, she tells us, “I love going out and seeing and experiencing new things. I love nature, and I really enjoy the social aspect of my job, which involves constant communication with a lot of people. But, I really enjoy my downtime, and after expending energy being outgoing, I love coming home to peace and quiet. The word ‘home,’ for me, means somewhere that is very much my creative sanctuary.”

Music is another creative outlet for Šakālis.

Music is another of Šakālis’ creative passions.“Over the last several years, I’ve drifted in and out of local ambient music project CLIP, which is run by my friends and fellow musicians Frazer Merrick and Simon Keep at Colchester’s Firstsite gallery. I work mostly with synthesisers, piano, the ukulele, and a bit of vocals. I also record my own compositions at home, and it’s a really nice thing to be able to do in my free time,” she says. “It helps to relieve some of the pressure from my current degree. The style of music I write varies from piece to piece but generally falls somewhere in the sphere of ‘ambient-electronic.’ I needed an appropriately geeky stage name, so went with ‘ms.D0S,’ short for Microsoft Disc Operating System.”

Šakālis gets her boyfriend to listen to her music before publishing it, and his thoughts on her musical style range from "It felt like I was transported to a magical alien planet, and I felt like the planet was orange," to "It made me imagine I was tripping balls whilst heavily sedated on an operating table, looking up at a cat who was doing surgery on me whilst high on acid. I'm not sure if the cat liked me or not."

Quite the descriptions. We've listened too, and can confirm that Šakālis’ music is certainly eclectic - if your interest is piqued, you can listen here.

Apart from making music, you can also find her wandering the jungles of Essex. “I really enjoy going on long walks and relaxing by capturing the odd bit of nature photography.” Šakālis also has what she describes as “an unhealthy addiction to memes. Particularly, memes of the nursing variety,” and is “A shameless weeb.” She tells us, “I live for anime and manga, like Fruits Basket, Vampire Knight, Naruto, and The Ancient Magus’ Bride. They’re so excessively girly and twee, which I love. Bonus points if they’re gothy and pretty. Also, I live for the level of innuendo in Food Wars. I always need more anime in my life.”

Looking to the Future

A picture of a Camellia taken on one of Šakālis’ expeditions.

With her heavy university workload and the state of the world, Šakālis is taking a wait-and-see approach to further voice acting opportunities. “My plan right now is to see what the response is to my acting in Lost Words and go from there. I’ve had really good feedback from the studios I’ve worked with, and the reception from online articles and blogs has been great, so I’m excited to see what our players think.”

"Working as part of a company is great, but being able to manifest your own art and ideas is something else entirely."

She does, however, have plans for indie game development. “I’ve also every intention of going it solo and working on my own games and animations once I’m able to fund them myself. Working as part of a company is great, but being able to manifest your own art and ideas is something else entirely. My attitude is that I can achieve anything I put my mind into.” 

Of course, what is life without a healthy work-life balance? “My other main goal is to live somewhere that isn’t Essex. Visit Japan; specifically Studio Ghibli and Laika. Go travelling and see some of the world. Put a down payment on a house. And actually have dogs and cats. I’d be really happy to settle down, get into botany, and just live the quiet life.” 

Lasting Impressions

When we sat down with Sidonie Maria Šakālis, we were not expecting her to be so multi-faceted. She has an immense work ethic, an unbelievable amount of talent in many different areas, and, quite frankly, is incredibly inspirational. She finds her passions and pursues them with confidence, and she has astute observations on both life in general and the nature of being a woman in the games industry. If the games industry is truly interested in providing equal opportunities, they need to sit up and take note of stories like these; we can’t help but think that many young people could benefit from hearing Šakālis’ story. 

We’re certainly looking forward to seeing what Šakālis does next, that’s for sure.

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Jesse Gregoire

Starting with the Sega Mega Drive, I’ve been playing those video game things for what seems like an eternity. Anything with a good narrative is my passion, but you can also find me clicking the heads in FPS games, living a second life in a sim, or looking for those elusive objects in adventure games. I’m still trying to workout what happened in Metal Gear Solid.